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Ryan Black commentary: Return to Athens meaningful for Nick Marshall

AUBURN, Ala. ­— Nick Marshall can address all of his thank-you cards this week to Todd Gurley.

If not for the return of the all-everything running back to Georgia's lineup Saturday following a four-game suspension from the NCAA for accepting money in exchange for his autograph, Marshall would be the overarching storyline. Auburn's quarterback still is one of the big topics heading into the latest edition of the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, of course. It's just that Gurley's comeback puts it in a distant second.

Which, if you know anything about Marshall, he couldn't be more thankful to hear. Marshall has always been the quiet, unassuming type. Why do you think he's quoted so rarely? Part of that is due to Auburn never making him available for midweek interviews. But the main reason is that he says so little.

He favors letting his play speak for itself, and more often than not, his play speaks loudly.

Not being an open book to media members shouldn't be viewed as him holding a grudge toward writers, though. Ask teammates or coaches, and they'd say he's similarly reserved around them, choosing his words carefully. From time to time, though, he has opened up to his teammates on certain topics.

Though Marshall himself wouldn't admit it last year, multiple teammates attested the Georgia contest held extra significance for Marshall.

It's his home state, after all, where he led tiny Wilcox High School to glory in 2009, giving the Patriots their first state championship. And Georgia is the school he originally committed to and signed with, a member of the Bulldogs highly-touted "Dream Team" class in 2011. But everyone knows how that story ended. Marshall was dismissed from Georgia along with a pair of teammates (receiver Sanford Seay and defensive back Chris Sanders) for what the Bulldogs would only say was "a violation of team rules." (It's been widely reported the dismissals stemmed from the trio stealing money from a teammate's dorm room.)

And once one moves past Marshall's time rehabilitating his career at Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kan. — where he returned to quarterback, his position in high school, after appearing in 13 games with Georgia as a corner in his only season in Athens — and past the first 10 games of last year, you finally get to the Georgia contest.

By that point, Marshall had the Tigers 9-1 and ranked No. 7 in the country. He proceeded to gash Georgia's defense for 89 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns in addition to 229 passing yards and one touchdown of some renown. (You know, the whole "'Miracle in Jordan-Hare' deflected 73-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis" thing?) The Tigers won that game 43-38 and set up an even bigger contest two weeks later against arch-rival Alabama.

Think Georgia and its fan base will remember that play this week?

The fact Marshall has had such success with Auburn will only add to the fan vitriol, though. Marshall led the Tigers to an SEC championship and within 13 seconds of a BCS title in his first year as a starter. Don't think Georgia backers will point out (or have already been doing so for the better part of a year) that none of those things would have been possible without the Bulldogs cutting ties with Marshall?

But that's life. The bigger the star, the more scrutinized they'll be.

With all due respect to Tray Matthews (another player Georgia dismissed who's now at Auburn), he likely won't receive near as much attention when he returns to Athens in two years.

Ask the Tigers' coaching staff what Marshall's first appearance in Sanford Stadium since 2011 means, though, and you'd think it was — wait for it — "just another game."

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, in all seriousness, stated Saturday only mattered for Marshall because of what happened last week, as Auburn fell to Texas A&M 41-38 at home.

Because that makes total sense.

When Marshall runs out of the tunnel Saturday night, the only thing on his mind is going to be, "Man, I really wish we hadn't lost to the Aggies. Now we've got another game versus a team that I used to play for. But that's not a big deal at all. What's important here is that we lost to the Aggies, and I don't want to lose again."

But in the interest of fairness, we'll let Lashlee have the floor to try to explain his side.

"It’s his home state he grew up in, but at the end of the day once that game starts and sounds good, he’s going to play the best game he can no matter what. He’s going to go out there and do the best he can, give his best effort," the offensive coordinator said. "It wouldn't matter who we were playing. I think I would trust Nick when he talks to you and says, ‘Hey, it’s just another big game.' I think that’s what I would trust.”

Gus Malzahn was singing that same tune this week, too.

Since Marshall tangled with Georgia last year, the novelty has worn off.

"Last year there’s no doubt it was definitely different for him, but any time you have that experience one time, it’s not as a big a deal the second time," Auburn's coach said. "He’s going to prepare like he normally would and there’s not going to be any more to it than that."

That only leads to the natural question: Isn't Saturday a different beast altogether? Marshall didn't take on the Bulldogs in Athens last year; he was in front of a forgiving, friendly crowd.

That won't exactly be the case this time around.

"You're right in the fact that this is the first time (he's gone) back," Malzahn said, backtracking from his previous take ever-so-slightly. "The fact that he faced his former team, a lot of time there's more to it for the players. You played the players more than the atmosphere. The atmosphere, when you play on the road, is pretty rowdy in our league no matter who you play."

For Marshall alone, it will likely be the most bitter environment he ever steps into. But dating back to his high school days, he's always shown a knack for rising to the occasion. It would surprise no one if he has a sterling showing Saturday. Among a sea of red-and-black clad detractors spewing negativity his way, Marshall will say nothing.

He'd prefer a victory serve as his only rebuttal.

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